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Joy and Matthew Steem

crampedapartment Amidst the poorly-veiled disgruntled mumblings and vigorously squirming behinds, the evening’s speaker announced the lecture was now concluded and it was time for questions: “This is a Q and R, not a Q and A. I will do my best to respond to all questions directed at me, but answers I will not promise,” she said. While this statement may have sounded quaint, perhaps even smug coming from a less candid presenter, her unpretentious approach dissembled my cynicism. Starkly shadowed by bright stage lights, the speaker traversed the stage’s width back and forth, back and forth. Her purpose for the evening was to invite our denominational tribes to a mediation concerning a hotly controversial topic.

True to the spirit of mediation, she had no harsh rebukes for people with alliances on either side, only an invitation to put our scholarly and scriptural ammunition aside and engage in genuine dialogue. Instead of more conventional approaches to differences which often include themes like how to defend alliances with scripture, maintain doctrinally correct borders and pursue “moral rightness,” she spoke to us on the value of generosity. The problem, she openly admitted, is that humans are not prone to honoring questions very well. We’ve always preferred the safety and comfort of believing our side of the battle line is the “correct” one and then devising strategies to defend it. Our default position is to lob counterarguments. Genuinely listening to voices on both sides of the issue can seems to threaten our desire to uphold Truth.

I’ve been reading Henri J. M. Nouwen’s Reaching Out: The Three Movements of the Spiritual Life recently. His section on hospitality reminds me a great deal of the speaker’s invitation to wade into the turbulent waters of open conversation. Unfortunately, in Western culture the term hospitable has often come to be associated with Martha Stewart or the kindly matronly woman at church who hosts ladies luncheons. This is unfortunate.

In hospitality, Nouwen says, we treat people as guests rather than potential converts. By imagining ourselves as hosts, we create spaces where we can be witnesses to the unveiling of a stranger’s inward treasure. And what’s more, our own gifts might be revealed to us when we open our hearts: for surely we all have treasures to share when we’ve found someone who will create a safe space for us to reveal them. Perhaps more risky still, Nouwen suggests that true hospitality “is not a subtle invitation to adopt the lifestyle of the host, but the gift of a chance for the guest to find his own way.”

Neither Nouwen nor the speaker suggested that the craft of space-making is by any means an easy undertaking. To be sure, tending to demands, talking, doing, acting, moving, and producing are all much easier alternatives to the patience-draining, vulnerability-requiring, generosity-demanding task of moulding ourselves into hosts and hostesses: individuals who willingly open ourselves up to the criticism of others for not toeing the theological party line we’ve been groomed to vociferously espouse. For some, the depth of our conviction will be called into question. But when we are grounded in the person who is Love, we can offer hospitality without fear. We can, as the speaker admonished, foster unity, not through the abandonment of our personal convictions, but through the enlivening cultivation of compassionate space-making where dialogue is no longer threatening. We can, as Nouwen says, “offer an open and hospitable space where strangers can cast off their strangeness and become our fellow human beings.”